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IRREGULAR TIMESIs it Enough Not to Harm?
The Fallout of the Baumrind - Owens Study


Late last summer, Elizabeth Owens and Diana Baumrind co-authored a study on the effects of corporal punishment on the long-term welfare of children. Seeking to clarify the long debate about whether corporal punishment is a useful technique for child discipline, Owens and Baumrind distinguished between moderate and severe corporal punishment. Their finding, which has triggered great controversy among social scientists who study corporal punishment, was that although severe corporal punishment has long-lasting negative effects, moderate corporal punishment does not.

In the conclusion of her presentation before the American Psychological Association, Baumrind states: "Although a value judgment that spanking is wrong is properly defended by its adherents on ethical grounds, a blanket injuction against disciplinary spanking is not warranted by causally relevant scientific evidence."

Many corporal punishment researchers have reacted angrily against this study, critiquing it on many grounds. It is important to note that, as Owens and Baumrind themselves admit, the study is based solely upon data describing children from a single, predominantly European-American, California community that is dominated by socially liberal and well-educated adults, not reflective of the general American population at all. In addition, the study only followed children into early adolescence. Many other studies have noted what appear to be negative effects of childhood and adolescent corporal punishment occuring in late adolescence and adulthood. The Owens-Baumrind study therefore should be considered a statistical case-study, and a beginning for examinations into the effects of different levels of corporal punishments, not a conclusive piece of research.

Meaningful and Humane Criteria

For the moment, let's place critiques of the study aside. The important matter is what the Owens-Baumrind study means on a practical level. Even if we assume that the study was properly conducted and is representative of the wider reality of corporal punishment across America and the rest of the world, do the study's results genuinely support the statement that "a blanket injuction against disciplinary spanking is not warranted by causally relevant scientific evidence"?

In order to answer this question, it is important that we set criteria for approval of disciplinary spanking as well as injuctions against disciplinary spanking. In other words, under what conditions would it be reasonable to endorse the practice of corporal punishment as a tool for the discipline of children, and under what conditions would it be reasonable to reject the validity of the corporal punishment of children for disciplinary reasons?

Let us suppose that moderate corporal punishment truly does not cause any long-lasting harm to the children who receive it. Is this enough information to justify a removal of all injunctions against corporal punishment -- laws against the use of corporal punishment in public schools, for example?

In selecting the standard for the endorsement or rejection of the disciplinary corporal punishment of children, I propose that we adopt the well-known and respected principle of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. This principle guides individual physicians in their evaluation of the procedures available to them, but it also guides regulatory agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, as they decide whether to approve new forms of medical treatment.

At first, applying this standard to disciplinary corporal punishment seems fairly simple. After all, Owens and Baumrind claim that their study shows that moderate corporal punishment does no harm. However, when one understands the complexities of the idea of harm, the standard becomes more complicated.

In the medical world, the principle of doing no harm requires that physicians only use techniques that have a reasonable chance of helping patients. If a pharmaceutical company wants to sell a new pill that it claims cures the common cold, it needs to seek legal approval by the FDA. The FDA will reject the proposed drug either because the drug causes harm or because the drug does not have the benefits that its manufacturer claims it has. So, even if that pill causes no harm to the people who take it, it would be illegal to sell it as a cure for the common cold unless it could be proven through rigorous scientific methods that it actually does cure the common cold.

It is considered highly unethical to administer a medical treatment that is known not to produce the health benefits its manufacturers claim it will produce. To do so would be fraud, because it would demand that the public pay money for a product that does not work.

Of course, corporal punishment does not have a direct monetary cost. Parents and teachers do not have to pay any money in order to spank a child. This is not to say that corporal punishment is without cost. The cost is pain, and it is paid by the child who receives corporal punishment. Owens and Baumrind say that moderate corporal punishment brings no lasting harm to children, but they do not dispute that it brings a great deal of temporary harm to children, in the form of pain.

One must ask the obvious question: Why would any adult purposefully inflict pain upon a child with the knowledge that the pain would bring no benefit to the child? To inflict pain upon children without need is surely among the most cruel acts we can imagine.

The Constitution of the United States of America, guarantees that all people who live within the borders of the United States are entitled to protection against cruel and unusual punishment, whether they are citizens or not. Additionally, assault is a crime in every state in the union. Therefore, proponents of the disciplinary corporal punishment of children are not just asking to engage in a necessary practice, but to gain a special exemption from the Constitution and from ordinary criminal law. Surely, in order to be granted this special exemption, it must be demonstrated that the practice of disciplinary corporal punishment not only causes no harm, but that it is necessary and beneficial.

It seems to me that the Owens-Baumrind report recognizes only half of the necessary criteria to remove "a blanket injunction against disciplinary spanking". The pain that could be brought to children as a result of the publicity surrounding this study dictates that all reports and presentations related to it discuss not only whether the data show a correlation between disciplinary corporal punishment and long-lasting harmful effects, but also whether the data show a correlation between disciplinary corporal punishment and long-lasting beneficial effects. In other words, Owens and Baumrind have the responsibility to discuss whether corporal punishment has any disciplinary benefits in addition to discussing whether corporal punishment is actually harmful.

The omission of any such discussion suggests that the Owens-Baumrind data does not reveal any disciplinary benefits of the corporal punishment of children. Indeed, there are no peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate any long-lasting benefits of corporal punishment. Given the lack causually relevant scientific of evidence for disciplinary benefits of corporal punishment, the extreme legal exemptions that corporal punishment requires and the high price of pain inflicted upon children who are corporally punished, there is indeed ample justification for a general rejection of the use of corporal punishment for disciplinary reasons.

It all boils down to this: when it comes to physical, emotional and disciplinary well-being of our children, methods that depend upon violent interactions between adult and child must be justified by evidence of substantial benefit, not the absence of evidence of substantial harm.



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